I’ve been a mystery reader for a long time. I especially love mystery books with a gardening theme. I think Agatha Christie was the first author who introduced me to the dangers of plants when taxine from yew berries was used in A Pocket Full of Rye (Miss Marple Series). I wonder if Agatha Christie knew the yew was also known as “the graveyard tree." Why? "The plant earned that name not for its ability to send people to an early grave, but because Roman invaders began offering church services in the shade of yew trees, hoping that this would appeal to the pagan population." This is an excerpt straight out of the enchanting new book Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. (The book is also one of the featured books in bn.com's Gardening Book Club for September).
Ordeal poisons, anyone? Here's another teaser from the book: "Among nineteenth-century European explorers a story circulated about the existence of a West African bean that could determine a person's guilt or innocence. According to local custom, the accused would swallow the bean, and what happened next would determine the outcome of the trial. If he vomited the bean, he was innocent, and if he died, he was guilty and got what he deserved. A third alternative existed: he could purge the nut, or evacuate it through his bowels, in which case he was also determined guilty and sold into slavery as punishment." (It makes me think of the Monty Python sketch about how to tell if someone is a witch -- but I digress.)
Wicked Plants is a nonfiction gardening book that reads like a mystery; I was intrigued the minute I read the title, and hooked from the first page! The book digs up some of Mother Nature's most evil creations—the trees, shrubs, vines, weeds, and other plants that have been known to maim, intoxicate, and even kill people (not to mention gross them out. A weed that makes you drool prodigiously? Ew!). I'd heard about some of these wicked plants before; in fact, I happen to let Jimsonweed grow in my garden, now that I don't have kids at home, because I think the flowers are beautiful. Wicked Plants goes into some detail about why this poisonous plant should be treated with respect.
So what could be more thrilling to a mystery and gardening enthusiast than a book about killer plants? The opportunity to have a one-on-one chat with the author herself! Enjoy my Q&A with the wickedly delightful Amy Stewart.
Becke: Hi Amy, and welcome to Garden Variety. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Amy: Sure—what do you want to know? I’m not a morning person. I’m a poor housekeeper. And I’m a writer, of course; Wicked Plants is my fourth book. I’d say I’m a gardener except that you should see the state of my garden right now—it's a mess. This book tour [to promote Wicked Plants] was so crazy that I actually had to hire somebody to work in my garden for the first time in my life!
Becke: I was fascinated by your book Wicked Plants. What was the most fun or interesting aspect of writing it?
Amy: Well, for me this book was all about the stories. There are thousands of plants that could be considered "wicked," meaning that they are poisonous, painful, intoxicating, destructive, offensive, illegal, or just plain awful in some way. But I chose plants that have interesting stories behind them—a victim, a villain, a body count. Plants that have been used to commit crimes, plants that started wars. A lot of these stories have the feeling of murder mysteries to me, and that was really fun.
Becke: When I started reading Wicked Plants, my first thought was, “I wish I’d written this book!” What inspired you to write about such a unique topic?
Amy: It was my dark side coming out. I actually think villains are very interesting. Evil-doers. Think about the novels you love—it’s always the flawed characters, the ones who make mistakes and get everything wrong, that keep you turning the page. The same’s true in the plant world, really.
Becke: In the book, you describe a lot of deadly plants; some of the effects of their toxins were horrific! One that was particularly disturbing was the plant Curare, which was used by 19th- and 20th-century surgeons to hold patients still during surgery—except it didn't do anything to relieve pain! I was fascinated by historical references like this. Do you have any anecdotes about how you tracked down those stories? Which were the most intriguing to you?
Amy: I had the most fun going through obituaries in old newspapers. More and more of those kinds of archives are online now, so it's getting easier and easier to retrieve these odd little stories that would otherwise be lost. Medical journals are also interesting; a lot of the articles are very dry and scientific, but sometimes they will publish a case study, where a doctor simply describes an unusual situation with the patient and how the case was eventually resolved. Those are fascinating.
Becke: When you were researching this book, did you come across any surprises?
Amy: Well, it was nothing but surprises, really. I guess one thing that really surprised me is how cavalier people will be about the poisonous plants in their own yard. People who go to great lengths to protect their children from electrical shocks by covering every outlet in the house; people who childproof their house so much that I can't figure out how to open a cupboard when I come over—often these are the very people who have, say, an oleander [an extremely poisonous flower] growing right by their front door. When I suggest that they ought to rip it out and replace it with something that won't kill their children, they just sort of shrug and say, "Oh, the kids aren't going to eat the plants." I think [some people] just have a hard time getting past the notion that anything that grows out of the ground must be good for us. The truth is that the plant kingdom produces [poisons like] strychnine, ricin, and cyanide. Plants work very hard to not get eaten—and that sometimes means inflicting pain and suffering on those who try [to do them harm].
Becke: Speaking of ricin [a poison that exists naturally in castor beans], I was living in England during the time of the “umbrella murder”—when a Bulgarian dissident was killed by a dart filled with ricin, and launched from an umbrella. So I was familiar with the castor bean plant. However I had never heard about Mussolini’s connection with castor oil, and was horrified to read about it in your book. Was this something you knew about already, or did you come across that in your research?
Amy: That was one I dug up—[the author] Sherwood Anderson actually wrote about “Mussolini’s thugs” pouring castor oil down people’s throats as a kind of torture. But don’t worry—the ricin is removed from [commercial] castor oil! But it can still be a nasty purgative.
Becke: Gardeners who love Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) may be stunned to learn that a relative of this plant, white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), was the cause of milk sickness, a deadly disease passed to humans through meat and dairy products. Would you tell us how this plant relates to the title of your book?
Amy: Ah yes, the weed that killed Lincoln’s mother. Cows would graze on white snakeroot, the plant would make them sick, and the poison would end up in their milk. People drank the milk, then got sick and died. That’s how Lincoln’s mother died, when he was only nine years old.
Becke: And it’s pretty well known that Socrates died after ingesting hemlock, but some people mistakenly connect his death with the evergreen Tsuga, commonly known as hemlock. In your book, you talk about what really did him in.
Amy: A lot of plants have the common name hemlock, even though they are [usually] no relation to the plant that killed Socrates. I had not heard of people connecting his death to Tsuga, but I do know that for a long time scholars thought he might have been killed with monkshood or water hemlock. But now it's pretty clear that the plant that did him in is Conium maculatum, or poison hemlock, a tall, weedy plant that resembles Queen Anne’s Lace.
Becke: Fans of Harry Potter may be familiar with the mandrake root, but I’ll bet they don’t know the Romans thought mandrakes could cure demonic possession.
Amy: Mandrake is an interesting plant. It's in the nightshade family, and it is a narcotic. In Romeo and Juliet, the potion that Juliet drank to make it appear that she was sleeping was made from mandrake.
Becke: What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about poisonous plants? For example, which plants have an undeserved bad reputation—and which are more dangerous than people believe?
Amy: People think that poinsettias are poisonous, and in fact they are only mildly toxic. I would classify them more as inedible than poisonous. I do have a whole section in the book of common garden plants that are toxic. People are surprised to find out that Sago Palm is highly poisonous [and potentially fatal] to dogs. I've had several very sad e-mails from people who bought a Sago Palm as a houseplant and came home to find that their dog had chewed a couple of leaves and was very sick.
Becke: Amy, you're also the author of Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, and From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden. Tell us a little about these, if you would, as well as any new projects you are working on.
Amy: From the Ground Up was my first book. It was a memoir about my first garden in Santa Cruz, California. The Earth Moved is a natural history of earthworms, an exploration of all the surprising and interesting ways in which earthworms impact our lives. And Flower Confidential was a behind-the-scenes look at the global cut flower industry. I was curious about where the flowers I buy at a flower shop come from, so I went around the world talking to breeders, hybridizers, growers, wholesalers, and florists. It’s the story of the journey flowers take before they get to the flower shop.
Becke: Amy, thanks so much for answering my questions!
Those of you who have your own questions for Amy, be sure to stop by B&N’s Gardening Book Club. Wicked Plants is a September feature, but we’ll be talking about Amy’s other books, too. Hope to see you there!
Visit Amy Stewart’s website: http://www.amystewart.com/
Follow Amy Steawart's blog: http://www.blog.amystewart.com/